* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
These words are true for most artists, not only writers.
There is the gift, of course, which is inseparable from – though not the same as – a need, a hunger for expression. It is possible to have the gift without the need. It is possible to have the need without the gift. The former can lead to a happy and contented life. I have seen promising young writers discard their gift, shrugging it off like a wrap on a warm summer evening. They don’t care. They don’t want or need it. The other, however, is a painful situation: the hunger for self-expression without the gift – that ineffable thing you can’t teach, or buy, or will into being. This story often ends in resentment and unfulfillment. Then there is endurability – Ted Solotaroff’s word – the ability to withstand the years in the cold, the solitary life, the affronts and indignities, the painful rejections that never end. The gift and the hunger are nothing without that endurability. But up there with the gift, the hunger, and endurance is another trait, without which the writer’s life can’t possibly work.
The writing life is full of risk. There is the creative risk – the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again – but there is also practical risk. As in, it may not work out. We don’t get brownie points for trying really hard. When we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our own minds. On our ability to create and continue to create. We have nothing but this. No 401(k), no pension plan, often no IRA, no plans – God knows – for retirement. We have to accept living with profound uncertainty.
Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
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A: I certainly do! When I left the active duty Navy in 1989, my co-workers threw a farewell party. One of the parting gifts I received was a small plaque from Tina Greene, a young enlisted woman whom I had supervised. The words on the plaque deeply resonated with me, since I was about to make a significant, risky, and scary career change. It was the perfect gift for someone facing the uncertainty of an art career.
Many years later Tina’s plaque is still a proud possession of mine. It is hanging on the wall behind my easel, to be read every day as I work. It says:
“Excellence can be attained if you…
Care more than others think is wise…
Risk more than others think is safe…
Dream more than others think is practical…
Expect more than others think is possible.”
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You give yourself a creative life – pursuing those questions and aesthetic conditions that mean the most to you. What are you interested in? Landscape and gender and nuclear power are each worthy subjects and there are plenty more. Do you aspire to exhibit in museums or public spaces or virtual realms? Your job is to figure out how to best engage these distinct contexts. Your studio may be a large industrial space or a second bedroom or the kitchen table, where you can work days or nights while wearing your favorite sweatpants and drinking tea as music blasts or silence is maintained. You might produce five or fifty objects a year, using bronze or oil paint or folded paper, and these can be large or tiny, made to last for centuries or a few weeks. Maybe you’ve been a printmaker for several years and all of a sudden you decide to make videos. OK. You might be influenced by Pop Art or Minimalism or Feminism or Fluxus. How are you using these various histories to your advantage? Does Edward Hopper or Gordon Matta-Clark or Agnes Martin or David Hammons inspire you? If not, who does? Try to understand the reasons for your choices, and if you feel the need to shift gears, indulge that impulse. Grant yourself the permission to acquire new skills, travel to biennials, buy a new computer, start a reading group. Risk not knowing what will happen when you do.
Stephen Horodner in THE ART LIFE: On Creativity and Career
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Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. They are like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain. And they have to do it over and over again. When they find that they have ridden and ridden – maybe for years, full tilt – in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and to gallop off again. They may spend a little time scraping off the mud, resting the horse, having a hot bath, laughing and sitting in candlelight with friends. But in the back of their minds they never forget that the dark, driving run is theirs to make again. They need their balances in order to support their risks. The more they develop an understanding of all their experience – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind.
Anne Truitt in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist
February 21, 1924. A hell of a day yesterday. Bitter disappointment awaits the worker in photography.
After risking my neck to get the 8 x 10 camera on la azotea – flat roof – over Tina’s room, the highest vantage point of Lucerna 12, and after straining my back and stripping my nerves to capture a sweep of scurrying cloud forms, development revealed fog – ruinous fog – unmistakably from extraneous light – and a beautiful negative it was, or might have been!
The demon fog can play such uncanny tricks – always I am confounded, disconcerted, mystified until the trouble has been located. All morning I squinted and poked and probed, finally patching with felt the supposed leak due to a warped back, but I lost my negative, as fine a one as any of clouds I have done.
In a blue funk, I was ready to quit, and when Galvan called, accepted his suggestion that we ride into the country and then walk for a while.
North, and out of el distrito federal, he took us to a barranca – gorge – close by – in fact, hardly twenty minutes drive away, yet, from the desolation of this cactus covered gulch we seemed a hundred miles away from any city street. Cactus and rock and the tortuous curves of el arroyo seco – the dry gulch – a bleakness to the spot intensified by a lowering sky, black wrathful clouds, angrily unable to spill their burden of rain. We climbed, we shot, we lay on the dead grass and watched the sunset edge the clouds with rose, and all around stiff cacti in spreading silhouette. Tea with Galvan, his three old aunts and Don pepe – cajeta de Celaya, te, pasas – jelly from Celaya, tea, raisins, and sweet bread.
I feel better, to hell with photography, art, women and all.
Yet – I wished for my camera today. Those serrated stalks of the maguey, their bold uncompromising leaves cutting the horizon, they would make a fine jagged base to a typical Mexican sky.
Nancy Newhall, editor, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Two Volumes in One: I. Mexico II. California
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